Texas has a longstanding reputation for being tough on crime and criminals. It executes more convicts than any other state and has a massive prison population.
But now the state is making crime headlines for another initiative in which a softer approach brought in seven years ago appears to have reversed the out-of-control growth of the state’s prison population.
In a recent article the Washington Post reported on how Texas softened its stance to head off a fast-growing prison crisis.
Texas gained its tough reputation after the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. In the wake of that ruling, Texas has executed “more convicts than the next six states combined,” reported the Washington Post. The use of capital punishment is declining in Texas, but more prisoners were again executed here in 2014 than in other US states.
More than 1 in 10 prisoners in the United States are locked up in the Lone Star State, with the prison population there nearly tripling since 1992. Texas remains tough on crime but the Post article highlighted how a series of reforms implemented in Texas seven years ago has reversed the relentless growth of the inmate population. “Now, the home of the most active death row in America is the model other states are looking to for ways to reduce their crime rate,” the Post reported.
The reforms were brought in a time when the number of inmates in Texas prisons was being swelled by the war against drugs and record crime rates.
The jail population grew from about 50,000 in 1990 to a peak of 173,000 in 2010, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a 346 percent rise. Texas was out of synch with the rest of the nation where the U.S. prison population doubled, to 1.5 million.
The rapid rise meant Texas couldn’t build prisons fast enough to accommodate the number of inmates. The state started shipping some to county prisons while private prisons that operated for profit sprang up to cope with the overflow.
By 2006 the state was facing projections of a prison population that would grow by 15,000 inmates in the following six years and a bill for more than $50 million for new prison beds.
Legislators called on Tony Fabelo, a 20-year veteran of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council whose job had been eliminated just three years earlier by Gov. Rick Perry.
The Washington Post article described how Febelo worked with State Sen. John Whitmire (D) and State Rep. Jerry Madden (R), on a treatment system to keep inmates out of jail.
To counter the huge number of former inmates who returned to jail after violating their parole, the trio set up a program involving hundreds of new beds in drug treatment programs.
In some cases probation violators were sent to intermediate sanction facilities, a step down from prison, which were aimed at getting an offender’s attention without locking them up.
The programs also involved more slots being created in outpatient treatment programs for criminals sentenced to probation.
A further component was pre-trial diversion programs that were targeted at criminals who were suffering from mental illnesses. Unlike jail they were overseen by officers who specialize in mental health and drug treatment.
“Crucially, the reforms gave prosecutors who recommend sentences and the judges who impose them a third option besides prison or parole,” reported the Washington Post.
The programs have brought about a fall in Texas’ prison population. The number of inmates in the state has fallen from its peak, down to 168,000 in 2013. In 2011, the state legislature backed the closure of a prison in Sugar Land, near Houston, the first time Texas had shut down a prison in 166 years.
These reforms are to be welcomed. However, Texas remains a tough state on crime and you should be aware if you are charged with a crime here, your chances of being incarcerated are higher than elsewhere. Hiring an experienced Dallas criminal defense attorney can help you avoid a prison term.